Editor’s Note: Crate Digging is a recurring feature in which we take a deep dive into a genre and turn up several albums or bands all music fans should know about. Today, we revisit this installment, which first published in October 2019, to celebrate the 40th birthday of The Birthday Party’s Prayers on Fire. Stay goth, kids.
Goth-rock, post-punk, new wave — what’s the difference? Is there a difference? It depends on whom you ask. The terms are often used interchangeably, and most of the defining bands in these genres were quick to dismiss labels altogether. So, it’s really up to us, the “music professionals,” to determine just where they fit in. I’m totally kidding, but it is important to note that “goth-rock” is a genre that can easily fall between the cracks of post-punk and new wave. It’s also worth noting that just because a specific record falls under a particular category doesn’t necessarily mean that artist is exclusively that genre.
So, yes, nothing matters and it all means nothing. However, if you’re like me and appreciate a slight sense of order and structure, however small, in a meaningless world, here’s what we mean by goth-rock.
Goth-rock took the synthesizers and processed guitars of post-punk and used them to establish apprehensive, sorrowful, and often epically ominous soundscapes. Its lyrics are usually introspective and intensely personal, but can be chopped up by poetic sensibilities, which naturally led to a taste for literary romanticism, morbidity, religious symbolism, and supernatural mysticism. Other signatures of goth-rock include heavy rock beats, romantic lyrics, electric influences, such as keyboards, and a tendency to focus on gloomy lyrics, boxes all ticked by Nick Cave, a pioneer of the genre.
Goth-rock can sometimes be confusing because many of the post-punk bands that influenced it went on to create albums that fall exclusively under the goth-rock genre. For example, The Cure, who began with a post-punk style of gloomy acoustics, evolved to become upbeat goth-rock legends. Cave’s own The Birthday Party are regarded as one of the major influences in goth-rock, and Cave himself is very much, with his deep-black hair and pale, skeletal look, the poster boy for the genre all these years later.
With that crash course under your Hot Topic belt, we’ve hand-picked 10 albums guaranteed to bring out your inner goth.
Joy Division – Closer (1980)
Joy Division were pioneers in post-punk and one of the most influential bands to emerge from the UK rock boom of the late ’70s/early ’80s. So, what exactly makes their second and final studio album goth-rock? Closer was released just two months after frontman Ian Curtis sadly took his own life, not that the record needed help heightening the brilliantly dark gloom of its content. Within the album, themes of misery and hopelessness are apparent, and the whole record feels as if trying to navigate through the billowing, thunderous storm of one’s own mind. Both the music and lyrics are phenomenally perceptive, blend together well, and yet often seem in contrast — and all this can happen over the course of a single song. There’s an infectious disharmony found on the record, which adds to the goth-rock romanticizing of sorrow as well. The album remains a beautiful and even tragic glimpse of a soul unraveling.
Most Bone-Chilling Song: “Colony”
Bauhaus – In the Flat Field (1980)
It’s safe to assume that when someone says “goth-rock,” one of the first bands that comes to mind is Bauhaus, particularly the track “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. It’s with that song’s same splendor that the band released the full-length In the Flat Field about a year later and that everything promised and hinted at came to fruition. Bauhaus’ debut is a collection of sharp, intensely focused songs that draws on the raw insurgency of punk but plays into the tropes of spooky wonders. The whole record was produced by the band themselves, because they insisted they were the only ones who knew what the record should sound like. Rightfully so, the whole album unfolds like the script to an auteur horror film as we lean into the agitated guitar, prowling rhythm, and terror-filled vocals of this goth-rock staple.
Most Bone-Chilling Song: “Double Dare”
Siouxsie and the Banshees – Juju (1981)
Siouxsie and the Banshees rose from the ashes of punk in 1976 and eventually branded themselves with their own form of neo-psychedelic rock with albums like A Kiss in the Dreamhouse (1982), but it’s on their 1981 record, Juju, that they fully embraced their goth-rock tendencies. It’s the prominent bass lines and Siouxsie Sioux’s theatrical groaning (not to mention her demonic makeup) that made songs like “Spellbound” and “Arabian Knights” dark masterpieces. The songs on Juju are carried along by the tribal, rhythmic beats of drummer Budgie, and as much as the song titles can seem like melodramatic cliches (“Voodoo Dolly” and “Halloween”), Siouxsie uses these haunted frames to explore struggles of identity and the loss of innocence. All of these elements come together in a package that proves to be influential in the genre.
Most Bone-Chilling Song: “Voodoo Dolly”
The Cure – Pornography (1982)
Robert Smith, another poster child for goth-rock, starts off The Cure’s fourth studio record with the line “It doesn’t matter if we all die” and, from there, guides listeners through the 1982 masterpiece of doom and gloom. Pornography is peppered with surreal, emotive poetry over roaring drumbeats and, through just eight tracks, manages to ruminate heavily on dark themes — dark being the quintessential characteristic of goth-rock — of drugs, sex, the end of the world, and, of course, death. The Cure survived the heavy hit and suicidal intensity of Pornography to achieve international stardom and acclaim towards the end of the decade with Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Disintegration. However, it’s Pornography, with its obsessive, erratic, beat-heavy components, that makes the band a mainstay in the goth-rock genre. It remains one of the darkest records in all of rock music.
Most Bone-Chilling Song: “A Strange Day”
The Birthday Party – Junkyard (1982)
The aforementioned poster boy for goth-rock, Nick Cave dismisses being a pioneer in the genre, but his band, The Birthday Party, particularly their track “Release the Bats”, are examples any music fan and critic alike will turn to when trying to encapsulate the genre. The song is filled with a rhythm section that vamps around a looming bass figure and a guitar that lurches back and forth, unsure of whether to make noise or form chords. It’s all tied together with Cave’s indiscernible, yowling vocals, a stark contrast from the ominous, low-pitched delivery with which he’s now indelibly associated. Lyrically, the song was meant to be a self-parody, caricaturing the band’s Gothic associations, but the joke’s on them as it’s made itself, and the band, a staple in the genre.
Most Bone-Chilling Song: “Release the Bats”
The Damned – Phantasmagoria (1985)
Believe it or not — and not that this is a prerequisite for being considered goth-rock — but Damned frontman Dave Vanian used to be a gravedigger before he was a rock singer. He also tended to dress as a vampire on stage, so, it’s really not that surprising that The Damned make it on this list. Vanian’s influences creeped into the band’s repertoire when fellow bandmate Captain Sensible was off pursuing a solo career, and it’s with Vanian’s goth taste that the band delivered their most commercially successful album. From Rat Scabies’ powerhouse drumming on the opener “Street of Dreams” to Vanian’s lush crooning on “Shadow of Love” and the comic hero-inspired tale of “Grimly Fiendish”, Phantasmagoria is goth pop at its very best, with vampyric bombast and Vanian moodily crooning on about beauties, beasts, and the dispossessed.
Most Bone-Chilling Song: “Grimly Fiendish”
The Sisters of Mercy – Floodland (1987)
Floodland is The Sisters of Mercy’s second album, which builds on the successful elements of First and Last and Always, and while both are staples in the goth-rock cannon, Floodland diverges in both scope and feel. “Lucretia My Reflection” is a near-whispered, creepy classic goth song that croons, “Lucretia, my reflection/ Dance the Ghost with me,” and from there the record is filled to its brim with ghostly keys and church organ-like sounds and at its core touches on all the bases of goth-rock. Although this album does seem to have a much more commercial-friendly approach to it compared to First and Last and Always, overall, if you like any of the so-called “dark culture,” you need to listen to this poppy goth-rock album from The Sisters of Mercy. You will not regret plugging your headphones into your computer and listening to this album, or better yet — taking a haunting late-night drive.
Most Bone-Chilling Song: “Lucretia My Reflection”
Clan of Xymox – Clan of Xymox (1985)
Clan of Xymox’s self-titled debut pioneered a movement, setting the tone for a new genre of music: “dark wave.” But for the sake of this piece, we’ll talk about its goth-rock elements, which allowed for a new genre development. Xymox uses the organic textures of acoustic guitars and abstract sound effects while foregoing acoustic drums in lieu of a drum machine and uses synthetic, orchestral sounds to give this music a solid grounding in the ethereal/classical overtones of goth music. Even those who aren’t huge fans of electronic music can appreciate the synthetic orchestra over melodic and wandering bass and the silky-smooth voice of Ronny Moorings. The difference between goth and dark wave, though? Dark wave is easy to dance to. And even though it isn’t well known, goths love to dance!
Most Bone-Chilling Song: “Cry in the Wind”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Tender Prey (1988)
Tender Prey is an album that fully encapsulates the goth label and all it has to offer. Across the album’s 10 songs, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds keep matters dark in tone. The lyrics are soaked in Southern Gothic tropes that seem born from the work of Faulkner himself. For example, the classic “The Mercy Seat” finds Cave in alternating personas, one a death row inmate, the other a preacher man, while “Up Jumped the Devil” is a dead-slow performance in hell. “Deanna” follows with a sing-along tale of a sociopathic couple’s murder spree and showcases Nick Cave’s talent as a songsmith. Through the rest of the record the piano is used as the primary instrument and allows for a sound that’s gloomy and alluring–all of this coming together to be a seminal record in the goth rock canon.
Most Bone-Chilling Song: “Mercy Seat”
Peter Murphy – Deep (1989)
Bauhaus helped paved the way for goth, and frontman Peter Murphy can be considered a prince of darkness and all the charm that comes with that title. Deep features Murphy’s biggest hit, “Cuts You Up”, as well, thanks to a ton of MTV play, which makes this the most digestible goth-rock record on our list. Deep is regarded as Murphy’s finest studio work. It’s a dark collection of dramatic, dynamic songs with the morbid theatrics of Bauhaus combined with a wistful and romantic longing in ballads like “Marlene Dietrich’s Favorite Poem” and “A Strange Kind of Love”. Still, at their core, these songs offer the dusky baritone, the hooky chorus, and the exuberant spooky vocals of goth-rock.
Most Bone-Chilling Song: “Cuts You Up”